Moments With Strangers : The Returning Soldier

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Ever since I had moved to Kuala Lumpur from Borneo, I barely had the chance to come home and visit my family often.

During my college years, I had enough money to come home for 3-5 days twice a year. Once I graduated, I could only afford to come home for 3-7 days in one year.

Then years passed, and I got married. I am thankful that I can now afford to come home and visit my family anytime Adi and I want to.

In 2014, Adi and I were traveling back to the Island for a weekend trip. A two and a half hour journey on an aircraft meant catching up on sleep for both of us. But this time, I decided to just catch up on some reading instead.

As an hour and free food passed by, the man who was sitting on my left in our 3 seated row suddenly turned to me and spoke in my native language.

“Where are you from? Are you a Brunei-an?”

 I was a little surprised at the sudden need of introduction, but kindly closed my book and replied with a smile, “Labuan.”

He looked relieved with my answer and more relaxed too. Maybe because both Brunei and Labuan folk share the same language with slight dialect differences. Before the conversation started, I noticed he kept fidgeting and kept biting his fingers and unease. He continued speaking in his dialect.

“Ah, Labuan. Well, that’s good to know. How long have you been in Kuala Lumpur? Do you work there?”

I feel his body language and his tone that he was not the kind who was nosey wanting to know things about a person at first sight. I could feel that he genuinely was just striking a conversation, to ease and feel distracted from his thoughts. So I decided to enlighten his mood.

“Yes. Well, I guess I’ve been living here for quite a long while. Fourteen years. The sleeping guy next to me is my husband.” I joked. “I’m assuming you’re heading back home. Which village are you from?” I asked.

“Yeah. I’m heading back home to my family’s village to see my father. I’m a soldier based in Malacca. Its been so long since I was home. Five years to be exact. I rarely get the chance to visit home.”

A Soldier. That explains the crew cut and dark skin. But I could not understand the uneasy fidgeting personality. He paused for a while and stared at his boots and made a faint smile. As if trying to construct his words.

“Y’know…It’s not easy to request a holiday or to be excused from service. But, I somehow managed to be blessed with the opportunity. I’m twenty-one and the youngest in my family. The only boy out of five girls. The last time I saw my father was when I was recruited and ordered to serve. It’s hard being a soldier these days. Hard to leave your family behind. But hey, that’s why you’re a soldier right? It’s for your country.” He smiled to comfort himself.

I noticed a glassed eye.

“That’s true. Even for me, who works in a normal nine-to-five hour office, I find it really hard to get annual leaves. Can’t imagine being in your shoes. But like you said. It is for the love of your country. You should be proud of that. Especially being a man from Labuan. The Islanders commend and admire your bravery.” I assured him.

“Yeah, you’re right. Yes, I supposed that’s something I should be proud of.” He agreed with a smile and nodded. Then continued…

“For myself… I want to get mad, but I can’t really be mad. But… ya know… Old people, once you get old, you get all sorts of ailments. If I had known from early on, I wouldn’t have gone on this flight. Yup, for sure!”

The soldier’s sister called for an emergency asking for her only brother to come home. Their father has fallen ill, presumably something long term. A kind of cancer that he still has yet to understand and hear from the Doctors himself once he arrives. His father has had this pain a month before he was about to fly off and join the army.

He had no idea that for the past 5 years he has been away, their family has been struggling to aid their fathers’ medical issues, until 3 days ago. He immediately requested a two week holiday to be approved due to a family emergency. He told me he did whatever it took to get to KL and board this flight. Even though travel expenses were paid by the Base Camp, he shook his head and assured me it still was tough.

“My mind wasn’t at ease at all throughout the whole bus ride to the airport. Every second I just kept asking myself, ‘Will I be able to make it? Will I be there in time?” He shook his head again.


I really didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t sure how to comfort a soldier. A young soldier, who signed up and was willing to die for his country but was not ready to lose a father. Who is?

I smiled and tried to remind him that prayers are the best thing to do to ease and heal the soul at times like these. That the fact that he manages to get on to this flight on time meant something more. That there’s a good reason behind all our actions. God willing, that his visit would bring him and his family peace. He smiled and wiped he’s glassed eyes.

Then tilted forward looking at Adi sleeping soundly.

“You guys look exactly alike.” I turned to look at Adi and smiled back at him.

“Haha, yea. I’m grateful that he loves the island life on our Labuan traditions.”

“Does he speak/understand Kadayan?”

“Yea. He can understand enough for now. Fully converse? Probably not there yet.”

We laughed. Then silence. He then looked at me and whispered closely.

 “Hey. Thank you. For listening. I’m just really worried. That’s all. But thank you again.”

“You’re welcome. No worries. We’re paadian anyways.”

Throughout the remaining hour, the Soldier seemed more relaxed. He even drifted off to sleep. When Adi woke up, I held his hand. Reminding myself that I’m so thankful to have him and his family accept me. To be able to afford coming home to see my family. Even just for the weekend.

*Paadian – Related, Family, Brothers and Sisters, close family member. In this case, I say paadian because he is a fellow Kadayan and Islander.

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